How Long Does it Take to Buy Some Chinese Food to Go?

By Cyberquill 10/31/201214 Comments

The Day Before You Came, written by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus in the early 1980s and allegedly the last song ever recorded by ABBA, ranks among my favorite songs of all time, mainly owing to the ingenious idea behind its lyrics: the hauntingly simple concept of running down the most humdrum of work days with each verse culminating in the line The Day Before You Came, thus implying in a powerful manner, yet without stating explicitly, the profound transformation in the protagonist’s life that was about to occur within the following 24 hours.

That said, I don’t quite understand the video, where the lady appears to be flirting with the guy on the train, becoming increasingly chummy with him as the clip progresses, even though this is supposed to be the day before he came—I suppose it all depends on how one defines “coming” in a man; besides, music videos of the 1980s generally weren’t designed to make much sense, so I won’t worry about it too much.

What puzzles me a lot more than the video is her evening timeline. As per the words of the song, the woman departed her office at 5pm:

At five I must have left, there’s no exception to the rule…

Then the narrative proceeds:

I must have opened my front door at eight o’clock or so
And stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go…

So she arrived home three hours after leaving work, having stopped to pick up some takeout dinner along the way.

Yet her house-to-desk commute in the morning, described earlier in the song, merely took an hour and 15 minutes, and it, too, presumably included a stop to make a purchase, in this case the morning paper:

I must have left my house at eight, because I always do…

I must have read the morning paper going into town…

I must have made my desk about a quarter after nine…

Assuming her typical evening commute mirrored her typical morning commute in terms of duration—and in the absence of an explanation to the contrary, there exists no reason to assume otherwise—this leaves almost two hours of her typical work day unaccounted for; which seems odd, given the song’s meticulous chronicling of the rest of her typical day.

Could the line at the Chinese takeout joint really have been this long, night after night?

If so, either (a) the food must have been truly out of this world and hence worth the wait, or (b) this was the only place within a sizable perimeter where people could get anything to eat at all, which makes one wonder where the poor woman lived.

Neither seems very likely.

So here’s my question for Benny and Björn:

What was the lady doing during the missing hour and 45 minutes?

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  • Richard

    Had you not noticed the discrepancy, I would have taken this beautiful song at face value and not realised that there was a hidden narrative.

    The detailing of the events of the day in question reads like a statement taken in the course of some official or semi-official investigation. As you say, three hours are missing. The question for the moment is not so much what is being covered up, but how the opportunity arose for committing the act prompting the enquiry.

    You ask how the three hours might have been lost. I work on the hypothesis that the homeward train was a stopping train, that the evening paper occupied only part of the journey, that the young woman making the statement and a stranger arranged to leave the train together in order to spend some time in each others’ company and that she continued her homeward journey alone. Unable to prepare a proper meal if she were to keep to her strict schedule for a beauty sleep, she bought a takeaway so that she could eat and get to bed promptly.

    So far this is mere conjecture, and we have now to turn to the official undercover video for corroboration.

    The young woman arrived as light was fading, or “in its frame”. According to the station clock, it was 6.45. The stranger appeared at 6.50,  just in time for the train. The chemistry between the two young people was instantaneous, and in sharp contrast to the young woman’s general mood of ennui. It is near to the autumn equinox, well known as a testing time for depressives.  We are thus to gather that the word “day”  in “the day before you came” is used rather in opposition to “night” than in reference to the previous day of the week. The video clearly shows evidence of the assignation and the fond farewell as the stranger sees her off on the train. It is fair to say, therefore, that intimacy of one kind or another took place at his residence. The aerial shot of the train took place on  another occasion in daylight. It was this sequence which precluded any possibility of a homicide investigation, for otherwise it would have been a careful reconstruction of the crime, which it was not.

    The  investigation was commissioned by her husband, from whom she was separated, for use in divorce proceedings, and discredits her bungled alibi,  an alibi rendered necessary by a statement from a member of staff at the takeaway as to the time of her visit.

    I pondered long and hard over the phrase “…to go” which you single out. I am unfortunately unable to reveal my conclusions out of consideration for those of your readers having a nervous disposition. Suffice it to say that all did not end happily ever after.

    Alternatively, it was a song repeating a conversation with her father when he paid an unexpected visit -- quite typical of such conversations -- and including the words “to go”, serving no meaningful purpose. The train home had been delayed by a signal failure. The video, as you suggest, was produced by someone with an over-active imagination.

    • Cyberquill

      Perhaps her evening train was delayed because a  boat had been swept onto the tracks. Happens all the time. 

      As far as I can make it out, the station clock at the start of the video reads 5.45. Since she “must have left” her house “at eight because I always do” [emphasis added], what was she doing on the platform at a quarter to six, and why did the guy suddenly show up there the day before he allegedly came? He’s shown running to catch the train, alright, but on foot he could hardly have attained a velocity exceeding the speed of light such that he  arrived at the platform the previous day. 

      The video just confuses me.  First it shows the two flirting on a train, then they’re half-naked, then they’re in a parking garage and he’s carrying a suitcase as if he’s leaving even though he just came, then she’s driving through the rain, and next thing she’s up there singing on a stage, flanked by Björn and Frieda dressed like snowflakes staring broodingly into the distance, and Benny watches from the auditorium as if he were presiding over an audition for Mamma Mia.  

      Therefore, I am requesting that the video be stricken from the record  and that we henceforth focus solely on the words of the song. 

      Now, given that the song recounts not one specific day but her typical day prior to that fateful encounter --the message being that “the day before you came” was indistinguishable from countless days preceding it --,  signal failure or similar one-off events (such as the occasional boat on the tracks) make unlikely explanations for the missing 1h 45 min (= three hours minus the time equivalent of her morning commute). 

      The fact that she chooses to withhold what typically (= day after day) transpired during that 1h 45min may point to a desire on her part to refrain from incriminating herself before the individual she’s addressing, i.e., the person that came.

      In other words, although she clearly doesn’t mind him or her — having stripped the video of all evidentiary value, we must consider the possibility that  whoever came the next day might just as well have been female —  learning about her smoking and her predilections for Chinese food, Dallas, and Marilyn French, she is reluctant to disclose everything

      Any reluctance to disclose information suggests a concern over potentially undesirable consequences of such disclosure. So the woman is worried about how he or she that came might react to a full account of her typical day prior to his or her arrival.

       On the other hand, she doesn’t bother injecting an innocuous falsehood (e.g., a nightly visit to the nail parlor en route to the Chinese takeout place) in order to gloss over the gap in her narrative without arousing suspicion of improper conduct during that time. 

      Clearly, she must expect her narrative as presented to arouse curiosity in all but the most indifferent or inattentive of listeners as to why it always took her an hour and 15 minutes to get to work in the morning but a full three hours to get back.

      • Richard


        Now just remind me- what actually happened?

        • Cyberquill

          Short of waterboarding the lyricist, we may never know. 

      • Richard

        The video, of course, depicts the homeward journey.

        • Cyberquill

          First, the station looks more like one located in a town where people live (or live and work) rather than where they would commute to for more than an hour each morning to get to their desks. For her homeward journey, she most likely boarded a train at Stockholm Central Station. (Not sure what Stockholm Central looks like, but I’d expect its platforms to be roofed at the very least.) 

          Second, to hear someone describe her morning commute while being shown footage of her evening commute would be so confusing to the audience that even a 1980s avant-garde music video maker with scant concern for continuity and logic would have shied away from presenting such counter-intuitive information overlap.  

          Third, even if this were her evening commute, it would still be the same day, yet the guy wasn’t supposed to show up until the following day.

  • Testazyk

    There is a three hour gap indeed but the question is when exactly the Chinese food was procured.


    I must have opened my front door at eight o’clock or soAnd stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go…

    Doesn’t the conjunction ‘and’ imply that the activity of buying the Chinese food is contemporaneous with or takes place shortly after the activity of opening the door at 8 or so.

    • Cyberquill

      She does mention “the train back home again,” which cuts the unexplained portion of the three-hour period from 5pm (“at five I must have left”) to 8pm (“opened my front door”) down to three hours minus commuting time. 

      You’re right,  the sequence of events as given suggests that she passed the Chinese place “along the way” from her front door to her living room, where she would then consume her dinner “watching something on TV.” Perhaps such takeout facilities in the hallway are standard in middle and upper class Swedish homes, similar to having a washer & dryer in the apartment. I’m not an expert on the Scandinavian way of life. 

      I suppose the confusion could have been reduced by replacing “and” with “having”: 

      I must have opened my front door at eight o’clock or so
      Having stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go

      That, of course, would have been one syllable too many. 

      Still, I’m not quite sure what might be the proper way to translate such a construction into the past-perfect tense, as would be indicated here, assuming she purchased her dinner prior to opening her front door, as the lyricist most likely meant — so before she “must have opened” her front door, she must have had (???) stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go? 

      If the song were written in simple past tense in lieu of the speculative  “must have” mode (a subjunctive of some sort, I guess), she could simply sing: 

      I opened my front door at eight o’clock or so
      I’d stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go

      Here, the past-perfect tense renders the sequence of events perfectly clear: first she bought her food, then she arrived home, even though the two actions are being mentioned in reverse chronological order. 

      But if she starts with “I must have opened my front door,” then I have no idea how to correctly communicate in the following line that she must have bought some Chinese food prior to having opened her front door, let alone without inserting a host of extra syllables (e.g., the word “before”) that wouldn’t fit the music.

      • Testazyk

        This whole issue would have been avoided if she had only opened her front door at six o’clock or so! 

        I like your alternative.  Another option would have been

        I must have opened my front door at eight o’clock or so
        And realized I’d forgotten to buy some Chinese food to go.

        • Cyberquill

          That’s right. She could have opened her front door at six, realized her fridge was empty, gone back out to get some Chinese food, gotten mugged on her way back, stopped at the police station to file a report, and arrived back home at eight just in time for Dallas. This would account for the missing 1h 45 min quite nicely. Of course, it would have had to have been her customary routine—which is possible, given she’s blonde—until the day Mr. You came and cooked dinner from then on.

  • Richard

    Would “but” work?

    • Cyberquill

      I don’t know. I might prefer a contraction of “having”: 

      I must have opened my front door at eight o’clock or so
      Ha’ng stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go…

      Still, I don’t think tampering with the wording will solve the mystery of her whereabouts during the time period in question. 

      As Ted suggested above, the whole simply could have been avoided had she opened her door at, say, half past six or so, then simply spent a little more time watching TV and reading French (or something in that style).

  • ABBAWhatnots

     Hello, Cyberquill! 
    As we, too, share your affinity for ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came,” may we offer not only our own explanation in an attempt to answer this fun and thought provoking question, but provide a hopefully delightful visual insight as well?

    First, according to the lyrics, the protagonist also reads the evening paper on her way home.  Which presumably suggests not one, but two purchases made at the time in question.  As compared to her single purchase of the morning paper made on her way to work, as you mention.  Which brings us to take home purchase number two; the Chinese food to go and the burning question of how long it takes to buy said Chinese food to go.  I personally think “take out” is faster than “to go,” but that is neither here nor there.  Take it for whatever it’s worth (what is the going rate of take out these days, anyway?).

    While season 2 of the new and again current Dallas will premiere on January 28, 2013 (which is a Monday), the original Dallas TV show of 30 years ago (when this song was recorded) always aired on Friday nights.  Of course with the weekend approaching, it stands to reason that Fridays were probably the Chinese restaurant’s busiest nights.  So therefore, longer lines.  Most likely, at least.  Assuming the food is good and comes with plenty of fortune cookies, right?  (Prediction: You’ll see plenty of fortune cookies in the future ahead when you watch our video.)  And who knows how authentic it is, maybe the menu is even in Chinese!  That’d take some extra time to decipher what you want right there!  Unless Björn was ordering.  I hear he speaks Chinese, although I’ve never actually heard him do so.

    So, being that it’s Friday and this is most likely the end of her work week, she probably took her sweet leisurely time to unwind before heading home to watch Dallas.  After all, she obviously knows what time it comes on TV and believably admits to it in the text of the song by confessing that she doesn’t think she’s missed a single episode.  Besides, who rushes home at the end of the workday the same hurried way so many of us sluggishly roll into the office 15 minutes late?!  If it is indeed 9 to 5 (Where IS Dolly Parton when we need her?!).

    To top it all off, she’s a woman, and you’ve heard of women’s intuition.  Maybe she anticipates or has a premonition that her life is about to change in some drastic way.  Maybe it’s a metaphor!  A metaphor that it’s all over; her workday, her workweek.  Maybe she feels that the sun is setting on her career the way it was on ABBA by the time they recorded this song.  I’d be willing to bet one of those fortune cookies that she maybe even went down to the river to watch the sun set!  Maybe with fleeting glances in the water as she reflects back on the framework of her career, knowing that ship has sailed.  Complete with sailing ships, even!  May we have a dramatic moment of “silence,” please?  Why yes, indeed!

    Sure, it’s all an elaborate, embellished “maybe.”  But nonetheless, an all the more definite, possible “maybe” when watching the visuals of our video interpretation where she also takes the scenic route home through Hannover’s Waterloo station, back to Hamburg, Germany!  Now if nothing else, THAT should account for some extra time, right?  Check it out:

    Part 1:
    Part 2:

    • Cyberquill

      So in your little puppet re-enactment there, the poor woman actually misses her morning train and reads the paper as she walks (!) into town, which may account for her arriving at her desk 15 minutes late, at a quarter after nine. 

      Of course, having left her house at 8am, presumably planning to make her desk at 9am by taking the train, yet arriving no more than 15 minutes late after having traversed the entire distance on foot instead, it would mean that the morning trains in that part of the world weren’t exactly of the high-speed variety. 

      But it also means that her door-to-desk commute in the morning would have taken only an hour — as opposed to an hour and 15 minutes — had she managed to catch her train. Therefore, her uninterrupted evening desk-to-door commute, where she did succeed in catching the train, would have taken no more than an hour as well. This then would drive up the unexplained time period from 1h 45min to an even two hours. 

      You’re correct in observing that if she stopped on her way to the train station in the morning to purchase the morning paper (assuming she didn’t have home delivery), the law of workday symmetry (which, incidentally, also says that morning commute equals evening commute) suggests  that she would have bought the evening paper en route to her evening train, a transaction that would necessarily have taken up some time, thus shortening the unexplained time gap as follows: 

      1h 45 minutes (or 2 hours, if calculated based on your scenario where she missed her morning train every day) minus time spent buying Chinese food to go minus time spent purchasing the evening paper 

      (Having worked in the restaurant business in the U.S. for many years, I confess that the nuanced distinction regarding promptitude, should one exist at all, between “takeout” and “to go” has escaped me. As far as I’m aware, these two terms are being used interchangeably.)

      Now, I’m no expert on Scandinavian economy during the early 1980s, but if the region was going through a Great Depression at the time, it would explain unusually long lines and wait times for basic goods, such as food and newspapers, in which case buying a paper and some dinner to go could easily have taken up two hours. (If her morning paper was delivered to her home, it would explain why she at least didn’t have to line up for an hour each morning to buy it. This, of course, would violate the law of workday symmetry, but there are exceptions to every law.) 

      Unfortunately, I cannot find any evidence of such economic woes in the region at that time, which renders the Great Swedish Depression theory somewhat far-fetched.  

      Although Dallas did indeed air on Fridays in the U.S., it aired on different days in different countries. In my native Austria, for instance,  Dallas day was Tuesday (“Montag, Dallastag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, …”). In Sweden, who knows, it may have aired on Mondays or Wednesdays. 

      Besides, she only mentions Dallas as an example to illustrate the general type of shows she would gravitate toward at the time, just as she mentions Marilyn French “or something in that style” to illustrate the type of material she would read. She doesn’t say it was necessarily that particular show or that particular author she consumed on the very day (or night) before “you” came. The song merely describes her typical day at that stage in her life. 

      Of course, there are a million things she could have done during those unexplained two (or almost-two hours) of her typical evening. Perhaps she went to the tanning salon to combat her congenital Scandinavian pallor, or perhaps she had a habit of stopping by for a chat with her best girlfriend who worked the night shift at the local Knäckebrot factory. The possibilities are endless.

      The point is, the song itself is silent on the two hours before she opened her front door at eight, whereas it minutely chronicles her whereabouts for the rest of the day. 

      In fairness, the song features a 35-second-long instrumental passage (roughly between time 2:30 and 3:05) before the singer comes back with “I must have opened my front door at eight o’clock or so” — could it be that the clue to the lady’s activities during those missing hours can be gleaned from the music? Does the music tell us what she did right before she got home at night?  

      If so, I find myself at a loss to translate it.

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